SANTA FE, N.M. — At the intersection of Canyon Road and Paseo de Peralta, near the heart of historic Santa Fe, the flow of foot traffic leading into the city’s gallery row steadily builds the farther the sun sinks below the horizon.
Carolers in Santa hats, strollers in furry caps, grown men in elf suits and even jolly old St. Nicholas himself in a sombrero, march virtually in unison along the darkened road, guided by trees strung with holiday lights and these little brown paper bags, each containing a flickering votive candle, called farolitos.
The thousands of pedestrians converging on Canyon Road is the Christmas Eve tradition called the farolito walk.
It has been said that these portable lanterns light the way for Joseph and Mary as they searched for food and lodging before the birth of Christ. Some people, such as Pedro Ribera Ortega – who wrote the book, “Christmas in Old Santa Fe” – claimed that the origin of today’s farolito traces back to Spanish merchants, who were so intrigued by the lighted lanterns used in Chinese customs that they brought them to the Philippines. And from there to Mexico, and from Mexico to here.
But regardless, Santa Fe’s civic tradition dates to the 1970s and has taken on a meaning all its own.
For Fan Morris, who braved the sub-freezing temperatures Saturday with her family, it was a way to “get away from Houston and the crass materialism,” she said. “We wanted to come to a place that was pure and where our family can feel connected with each other.”
Fan’s daughter Sarah MacDonald, who traveled to Santa Fe from the San Francisco Bay area, has known of the farolito walk for years and she, too, wanted to experience it with her entire family, including husband, Nate, and their two sons, Quinn, 5, and Peter, 2 .
“We’ve always wanted to come and walk up and down on Christmas Eve and see the luminarias,” Sarah said, using what some regard as the alternate term for the lights. “Everybody is always talking about how beautiful it is – and they are. We’re so happy to be here.”
Even longtime residents Raychel Orlove and Michael Zeilik make it a point to take part in the procession from time to time.
“I’m probably here every other year,” said Raychel, who’s lived in the City Different for about the past decade. “And I’m here this year for great spirit.”
As for Zeilik, who has called Santa Fe his home since 1985, he said, “I’m celebrating Venus, Jupiter, and the winter solstice.”
When asked if they’ve seen any change in mood throughout the years at the farolito walk, Orlove replied: “It gets a little more fast paced and there are a little more people, and there’s a different tone every year.”
“I definitely think it’s more hustle and bustle than it used to be,” he said.
Still, they keep coming back.
“It’s a ritual that is special to Santa Fe,” Orlove said.
Zeilik added: “Only in Santa Fe. Even though it’s more hustle and bustle, it’s all good.”